Sandbags To Plug Radioactive Leaks

Tokyo. Workers at Japan’s crippled nuclear plant piled up sandbags and readied emergency storage tanks on Tuesday to stop a fresh leak of highly contaminated water from reaching the ocean, opening up another front in the battle to contain the world’s worst nuclear accident in decades.

As fears of further contamination grew, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said his government was in a state of maximum alert over the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The Japanese government said the discovery of plutonium in the soil near the plant provided new evidence that the fuel in at least one of the plant’s reactors had experienced a partial meltdown. A full meltdown of the fuel rods could release huge amounts of radiation into the environment.

“There is a high possibility that there has been at least some melting of the fuel rods,” said Yukio Edano, the government’s chief spokesman. “That in itself is a very serious situation.”

Kan defended his visit earlier this month to a nuclear power plant crippled by a tsunami. Responding to questions for the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit, Kan said that the crisis at the plant gave little cause for optimism.

He said his March 12 visit was not a “political performance,” the Kyodo news service reported. “Grasping the situation at the plant at that time was extremely important.”

Efforts to contain the crisis at the plant, ravaged in the quake and tsunami, have focused on restoring power and restarting the cooling systems at the plant’s six reactors, while keeping the nuclear fuel rods cool in the meantime with fire hoses and pumps.

But in the past days, work at the plant’s most severely damaged reactors, Nos. 1 through 3, has slowed, after the discovery of highly radioactive water around and inside the reactor buildings. The water has now accumulated inside the turbine buildings of the three reactors and is making its way through separate underground tunnels to openings 200 feet from the sea, officials say.

On Tuesday, workers prepared to pump water out of the turbine buildings, and to find storage tanks to hold the radioactive water.
But capacity may be running out, officials said. At Reactor No. 3, for example, a 750-gallon tank inside the reactor building is already full.

Last week, the US-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research said that the plant had already released far more radioactivity than the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The institute said that by March 22, the Fukushima reactors had released about 2.4 million curies of iodine 131, about 160,000 times the best estimate of the amount released at Three Mile Island, and about 10 percent of the amount released in Chernobyl in 1986.

Fukushima Daiichi has also released half-a-million curies of cesium-134 and cesium-137, which have longer half lives, also about 10 percent of the amount released in Chernobyl.

The New York Times